Forests & Waterways
of the Cariboo-Chilcotin
Old Growth Douglas-fir forest © M. Evans
The forests of our region flourish with thousands of species, from the fungi and mosses of the understory, to the towering old-growth conifers. Flowering plants, ground and canopy insects and the birds and bats that feed on them, large ungulates that feed on the shrubs and lichen (deer, moose, Woodland and Mountain Caribou), predators (bear, wolf, cougar, lynx, fisher, river otter) that feed on the ungulates and fish that spawn in the rivers and streams, - to the shrews, salamanders and voles that make their homes in the bark of rotting logs, - even the soil, water and rocks - all of these organisms form the forest ecosystem!
There are three main ecoregions (areas similar in climate, geology, wildlife and vegetation) within the Cariboo Chilcotin: the Fraser Plateau, Fraser Basin, and the Columbia Mountains and Highland. Formed millions of years ago by the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, the Fraser Plateau was smoothed and flattened by the glaciers' massive weight (over 1km thick in many areas), leaving a thick layer of glacial drift. Numerous ponds and lakes formed in the pockets left scattered over its vast rolling surface. The plateau evolved as the Fraser River on the east and Chilcotin River on the west cut down into the numerous layers of hard lava from the late Pliocene time (around two million years ago), forming the steep-sided valleys they now flow through. Originally the Fraser River flowed northward! The drier Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine forests cover a large portion of the Fraser Plateau, as it lies in the rain shadow of the Coast Mountains.
The Columbia Mountains and Highlands to the east contain the Cariboo Mountains and Quesnel Highland. Formed in the Crustaceous Period (over 60 million years ago), this area is much wetter than the Fraser Plateau and Fraser Basin. The lower forests are made of western red cedar and western hemlock trees, with black cottonwood edging the rivers. The higher mountain forests consist of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. Dependant on the old-growth forests of the subalpine is the red-listed* Mountain Caribou. In summer these caribou feed on greens in the open alpine tundra, but come fall they move to the cedar and hemlock forests. When the winter snow becomes packed firm enough to hold their weight, the Mountain Caribou move back up the mountain into the subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce forests. The deep snow which prevents them from digging for food in winter, forces the Mountain Caribou to survive exclusively on the arboreal lichen (grown in trees) that is only abundant in the old-growth forests. A single caribou eats over 4 kg of lichen per day in winter. The importance of keeping the Mountain Caribou's traditional corridors of old-growth forests from becoming fragmented by roads, clear cuts or recreation trails (that allow predators easy access) is vital for their survival.
Interior Coho Salmon (endangered) © Ernest Keeley
Fish and wildlife species influence, and are influenced by, the health of an ecosystem. Key species, like salmon, play a vital role in the distribution of nutrients from the ocean to the Fraser Basin. The Horsefly River system is one of the most important sockeye producers in the Fraser Basin. Each fall Sockeye Salmon travel from the ocean through the Fraser Basin to finally spawn in great numbers in the Horsefly River. In late fall, also making their way from the ocean to spawn in the Interior Fraser River watersheds small streams, are the endangered Interior Coho Salmon. Young Coho, emerging from eggs the following spring, spend the first year of their lives in these freshwater streams that empty into the Fraser. Maintaining healthy stream habitat is vital for the Interior Coho's survival. In contrast to the small streams, where trout and salmon fry spend their first year of life, the deep waters of the Fraser River are home to the great White Sturgeon. Reaching up to 6 m in length, 700 kg in weight and over 100 years in age, these ancient primitive fish are believe to have appeared 75 million years ago. Due to habitat loss, past over-fishing and water pollution, the White Sturgeon is red-listed.
Large rectangular holes in the standing dead trees are a sign Pileated Woodpeckers have been feeding. Later, these holes will provide nest sites for Chickadees and Kinglets. The blue-listed* Fisher depends on thick oldgrowth forests with large old trees and younger trees in the understory, many downed logs, snags and a closed canopy. Fisher use dens, often taking over old squirrel or raptor nests, for resting. The female fisher use large dead tree cavities, over 15 m above ground, to raise her kits. If natal dens are not available, they may not colonize. The speed of a fisher makes it the primary predator of the porcupine. To remain healthy, fisher populations need a 250 km-square area, untouched by roadways or development. This would also be important for other species such as the marten, wolverine, and lynx populations.
Mosses, Mushrooms & Lichen © M. Evans
The drier areas are dominated by Douglas-fir with a grassy understory dominated by pinegrass. Wildfires are a natural occurrence and have a big influence on forest ecosystems. Low-intensity fires often scorch the forest floor every ten to twenty years in small areas. The thick bark of old-growth Douglas fir enables them to survive low-intensity fires while the young trees and understory are burned. After a large, high-intensity fire where all plant life is destroyed, the first trees to grow back are lodgepole pine. Insects such as the mountain pine beetle and spruce bud worm, though each very small in size, can have a large impact when their populations grow. Large areas of red-needled pine trees currently blanket the region and will lead to a major change in the forests of our future. Meanwhile birds feed on the plentiful supply of these beetles. As well, the blue listed* Townsend Big-eared Bat hunts the forest for insects, gleaning them right off the branches of the conifers. Fire, windstorms, and insects change forests and create different habitats to which a greater variety of wildlife are attracted. This change often leads to a healthier, more diverse forest ecosystem.
Our forests ring with the sounds of birds: spring mating songs, the drumming of grouse, the tapping of woodpeckers feasting on beetles, and cries of Bald Eagles and Osprey diving from lofty peaks, talons ready to catch a fish. Great Blue Heron and King fisher silently stalk the streams for young fry, while the Gray Jay glides ghost-like through the forest, scavenging for scraps. Blue-listed* Flammulated Owls nest in old woodpecker holes. The brilliant blue, black crowned, Steller's Jay may be found nesting in the thick branches of the Douglas Fir. This bird, chosen as Official Bird of BC, lives on grain and seeds in the dense conifer forests.
Within the Quesnel River watershed are large populations of resident rainbow trout which are provincially and nationally significant. The body of these rainbow is second largest in the world. Quesnel Lake is the deepest fjord lake in the world. The Quesnel Lake rainbow trout population is based upon natural reproduction from larger tributary streams. The Horsefly River is the most important of these spawning streams; the Quesnel and Mitchell rivers are used to a lesser extent.
Grizzly (Blue listed) on shore of Quesnel Lake © Geoff Price
Nearby in the subalpine mountain forest, the blue listed* Grizzly Bear feeds on sedges, horsetails, grasses and berries. A lesser portion of their diet is made up of marmots, insects and fish. Once well distributed across Eurasia, North America and North Africa, the Grizzly bear has been extirpated from most of its range. Now, there are only populations of grizzlies in north west North America and Russia. During spawning time, the grizzly are attracted to the streams and lake shores where plentiful catches of salmon, rainbow trout and kokanee promise a protein-rich meal.
The forests of the Cariboo Chilcotin are also home to the largest bat in Canada, the blue-listed* Spotted Bat. With ears approximately 4 cm in length, and a wingspan of around 35 cm, the black body of the Spotted Bat is marked by three large white spots. Unlike most bats, its call may be heard by humans. The Spotted Bat hunts moths and other insects flying over tree tops. Many other species of bats hunt insects from dusk until dawn both within the forests and over the open water. Since they hunt from dusk until dawn, they are seldom seen and yet all bats play an important role in our forest ecosystem.
Low bush Juniper with berries © M. Evans
The varied forest types of the Cariboo Chilcotin region, each with its unique selection of plants, soils, landscape features, climate and inhabitants, are forever changing. In order to understand the forests and the waterways we always have to remember that all parts of this system, from the tiniest insect to the largest tree, work together to create a healthy, functioning forest ecosystem.
*Species are ranked in BC by their risk of extinction:
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